‘Everything about the characters was held within these notes’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s guest is playwright, actor and award-winning author Jason Hewitt @jasonhewitt123
Soundtrack by Fritz Kreisler, Manuel Ponce, Schubert, JS Bach, Gustav Mahler, Benny Goodman, Erskine Hawkins, Flanagan & Allen, Johann Johannsson,James Newton Howard, Philip Glass, Dvorak, Max Richter
Whenever I give a talk about writing I usually start by making a comparison between music and literature, saying that in my mind writing a novel is the literary equivalent to composing a symphony. It’s an analogy that was certainly apt when writing The Dynamite Room, a novel set in 1940, and in which music pervades the whole narrative, not least because two of the main characters are trained musicians.
I’d written fiction before but never a novel in which music flavoured the story so intensely, and as I started to fumble my way through a first draft I began looking for links between the processes of composing music and writing fiction. My protagonists, Heiden and eleven-year old Lydia, might be my lead instruments (first violin and piano perhaps) but they are nothing without the support of the other characters that swill in and out of the story like horns, clarinets and flutes. Like a symphony my novel is split into movements (or five days in this case); backstories, plotlines, and recurring motifs thread in and out like returning musical themes, ever word placed like a note. I even plotted out the crescendos on a piece of paper, marking them on my literary score along with where each character (my instruments) swept in and then left.
Heiden is a Nazi soldier but music is so engrained within him that much of his pre-war memories revolve around it or his relationship with Eva, a gifted violinist. As the novel is partly told from Heiden’s viewpoint I felt that I needed to submerge myself into his world as much as I could, to familiarise myself with the classical pieces that were important to him so that those pieces that he and Eva loved lived within me as much as him.
For that reason Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid, Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria were played on constant rotation so that they soaked into every scene the characters featured in as I wrote. From the moment we first encounter Eva, through a memory, she is engulfed in sound – JS Bach’s Violin Concerto in E – while tracks like Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 not only would have been embedded within Heiden’s repertoire but also helped me to conjure the blistering hot July of 1940 – it’s a piece that smoulders like the heat.
If he shut his eyes he could hear it, the Concerto swelling to fill the template of the metronome’s beat, the auditorium reverberating to its ornate rafters in that glorious wash of sound.’
To immerse myself in the period I would start my writing days by listening to 1940s hits. Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance and Erskine Hawkins’ Tuxedo Junction are almost synonymous with the times and helped me create the atmosphere of some of the lighter moments and the memories that Lydia has of the house where ghosts of music long silent still swill through the rooms. I like to think she would have danced around to Flanagan & Allen’s Run Rabbit Run but to Heiden the wartime radio hit holds a much darker significance.
To help me find the essence of my main characters I also chose an individual ‘theme track’ for them – a piece that epitomised them in my mind. For Lydia it was Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Theme from And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees. It evokes Lydia’s wide-eyed innocence, particularly when we first meet her on a hot day, the piece very aptly ending in a storm.
For Heiden I needed something more robust, filled with the same vigour, resilience and desperation that he is. I chose Nothing is Impossible by James Newton Howard (from the film Defiance). There is a sense of endless endurance to it that reminded me of him battling through the blizzards of Norway, a lone violin struggling through the torrent of other strings.
Eva’s piece is the Violin Concerto, 2nd Movement by Philip Glass. There’s a simplicity to it that mirrors her moral position and yet becomes increasingly complex until it finally breaks free into its stomach-churning midsection then swills away again. Combined, these pieces hold the balance between my characters. If I ever lost sense of who one of them was I would play the track and they would come alive again, as if everything about them was held within these notes.
She always wrote on lined paper, each letter placed like a note, whole sentences plotted out like lines of music. He could sing the words if he wanted to, he could hear the song of them playing in his head.’
In my new novel Devastation Road, music takes a back seat, but as the story is about the immediate aftermath of war it seemed right that the musical influences I’d established in The Dynamite Room still echo through.
The early chapters are set in Czechoslovakia and have a dreamlike atmosphere as Owen wanders through a landscape that he cannot remember. Dvořák was greatly influenced by Bohemian Forest Music and his Silent Woods became the soundtrack for my opening scenes. Flutes come in like trilling birds while the slow descent of notes sound like Owen’s trudge as he traverses the Bohemian forests himself, the surge and fall of the music mimicking the densely-wooded slopes.
As the story progressed, though, I found myself needing something more and discovered it in Max Richter’s After Gunther’s Death (from Lore). The two-note rhythm of the piano echo the stumble of Owen’s feet as he makes his journey across Europe, only then for the violin (like Janek) and then the cello (like Irena) to join him, the three of them sweeping along together, somehow pulling each other through. It’s a piece that – like my novel I hope – is tragic and yet filled with heart.
Jason Hewitt is an author, playwright and actor. His debut novel The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster 2014) was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His second novel Devastation Road (Scribner 2015) was published in July. After a successful run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe his play Claustrophobia makes its London debut at The Hope Theatre, London (Nov 17-Dec 5 2015). For the full Youtube playlist that accompanies The Dynamite Room please visit his website. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter @jasonhewitt123